Fantasy edges its way into the modern world with director Aleksander Nordaas' Thale. He builds his film around a bit of Norwegian folklore and makes it stick by allowing the tale's gentle pacing to slowly lay out its mystery in a manner that completely takes a hold of one's imagination. That he does so with a tiny cast and limited resources makes it even more impressive.
When we first meet our protagonists Leo (Jon Sigve Skard) and Elvis (Erlend Nervold), they are knee-deep in quite the mess. I mean that quite literally since they are crime scene cleaners (No Shit Cleaning Service is as great a business name as I've ever heard) who are currently taking care of a little old lady's mostly liquefied remains. Well, Leo is taking care of her remains while Elvis pukes his guts out in a corner. It's a grisly application of less-is-more (who needs to see the remains when you can see the queasy impact on Elvis) and it sets the tone immediately. We're already on edge when they make their way to the next job but that doesn't mean we'll be any better prepared for what they're about to find.
At their next crime scene, as Leo and Elvis take stock of an old man's body (or at least the parts of it they can find), Elvis stumbles upon the entrance to an underground bunker. Leo, ever cautious, warns against entering the space but Elvis busts on through. Soon they find themselves surrounded by strange laboratory equipment, expired canned rations and a bunch of old audio cassettes. It's all quite creepy and puzzling until their scale of ‘creepy and puzzling' gets recalibrated by a naked girl (Silje Reinåmo) who pops out of a bathtub filled with some sort of white milky fluid. They think her name is Thale based on the disembodied voice contained on the audio cassettes but can't get much out of her. She mutely stares at them with a feral intensity characteristic of a wild animal that has been cornered.
While Leo calls headquarters for help (which is predictably slow to arrive), Elvis nervously tries to find common ground with Thale. As I said, she isn't one for conversation. She eats; she drinks; she stares. When Elvis has just about given up hope of communicating with her, she touches his head and performs some sort of freaky mind-meld that allows him to see images from her past. It suggests a painful upbringing overshadowed by captivity and unspeakable mutilation. Was her captor a monster or a misguided savior? The ugly stitched up scar on her lower back suggests the former but that doesn't account for the shadowy figures who seem to be lurking in the woods, looking for Thale.
I'm bordering on spoiling the film so I'll pull back now. As far as I'm concerned, even the artwork for the film gives away too much in terms of who or what Thale exactly is. At only 78 minutes, this is a short film blessed with a few key reveals and pivotal moments. They deserve to be discovered in the manner envisioned by Nordaas. He seems to understand what a self-contained little (verging on quaint) tale he has on his hands so he works overtime to bulk up the atmosphere. The result is admirable.
The film's first 20 minutes are so effective at introducing our central trio and the mystery that surrounds Thale that we almost don't notice how little happens from that point on until the finale. Sure, the mystery deepens as Elvis listens to the tapes and interacts with Thale but the pacing of the mid-section can kindly be described as measured. This isn't necessarily a turn-off as long as you know what you're in for. Besides, the payoff of the climax is well worth your patience. The film takes a quick detour into action territory as Thale defends her interests with unexpected ferocity. Nordaas stages the entire sequence quite competently and provides the film with a satisfying finish.
With such a small cast, even one off-key performance would throw the film's dynamic for a loop. Thankfully the central trio understands the tone that Nordaas was shooting for and delivers on it. Nervold and Skard balance each other wonderfully with the former being a bundle of nerves who slowly finds his strength while the latter covers up his pain with a matter-of-fact exterior. The trickiest performance, of course, belongs to Reinåmo as the titular being. Despite being quite naked for significant stretches of the film, she projects such innocence and vulnerability that Nordaas never runs the risk of sexualizing her.
As for Nordaas, well, he's just the glue that binds this whole enterprise together. Besides directing, he wrote, co-produced, shot, edited and handled set decoration for the film so calling it a labor of love would be an understatement. His intelligence and restraint permeates every frame, showing someone in complete control of their medium. I can't wait to see what he does next.